President Barack Obama withdrew his nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a federal appeals court Friday, handing a victory to Republicans in the Senate who twice blocked his pick for the key judicial post.
Calling the obstruction by Republicans unjustified and unacceptable, Obama said he agreed to Halligan's request to be pulled from consideration even though she would have served with distinction on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
"I am deeply disappointed that even after nearly two and a half years, a minority of senators continued to block a simple up-or-down vote on her nomination," Obama said in a statement the White House issued while he was traveling in Jordan.
Senate Republicans blocked Halligan's confirmation for a second time in early March, arguing that Halligan is too liberal and citing her work on lawsuits against gun manufacturers and on behalf of illegal immigrants. The National Rifle Association also staunchly opposed her confirmation.
The D.C. appeals court and its makeup are of critical importance to the president, with oversight of many of the actions his administration takes. The court handles challenges to most federal rulemaking and oversees federal agencies based in Washington. Obama noted it's also often considered the second-highest court in the U.S.
It's also something of a pipeline to the Supreme Court. Four of the nine Supreme Court justices served on the D.C. Circuit before being confirmed to the higher court. Halligan herself was nominated to fill the position that John Roberts vacated when he became chief justice.
There are four vacancies on the court, with judges nominated by Republican presidents holding a 4-3 majority.
Halligan's nomination has been a flash point for Obama and Republicans since 2010, when Obama first tapped her to fill the vacancy on the bench. Republicans stalled, then used a procedural maneuver to prevent a vote on her confirmation. Obama re-nominated her at the start of 2013, but her confirmation again fell victim to GOP opposition in early March. Although a majority of senators, 51, supported Halligan's nomination, Democrats needed 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to get it past Republican objections.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Halligan is among the most qualified nominees he's ever seen a president nominate and that she would certainly have been confirmed had Republicans permitted a regular vote, where only a simple majority would be required.
"It is a shame that narrow, special interests hold such influence," he said.
In a letter Friday to Obama, Halligan said it had been a "tremendous honor" to be nominated, but she made no reference to the clash with Republicans that stymied her confirmation.
"After much reflection, I believe that the time has come for me to respectfully to withdraw my pending nomination from further consideration," wrote Halligan, general counsel for the New York County District Attorney's Office.
The skirmish over Halligan's nomination has also become entangled in a larger partisan fight over Republican efforts to hinder Obama's agenda and the use of Senate procedures to prevent the president from getting his judicial picks.
"Nominations to this court are beginning to be treated like Supreme Court nominees, with very close scrutiny," said Carl Tobias, who teaches law at the University of Richmond. "Senators could be emboldened to filibuster more appeals court nominees — especially for the D.C. Circuit."
Democrats have accused the GOP of foiling Halligan's nomination as part of a plot to maintain a conservative majority on the key appellate court. Republicans have insisted that's not true, arguing that they objected specifically to Halligan, not Democratic nominees in general.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Halligan's former work as solicitor general for the state of New York "a textbook example of judicial activism." In one case he cited, Halligan filed a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the National Labor Relations Board should have the legal authority to grant back pay to illegal aliens. In another, Halligan argued that gun manufacturers contributed to a public nuisance of illegal handguns in the state.
The White House said it has 18 judicial nominees awaiting confirmation. Among them is U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz, who has been waiting more than a year for her confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia.
Obama's judicial nominees — not counting the Supreme Court — have waited an average of 117 days for final confirmation after being approved in committee, the White House said. That's compared to 34 days for President George W. Bush and 16 days for President Bill Clinton at the equivalent point in their presidencies.
The White House has not said whom Obama will nominate in place of Halligan, nor what the timeline will be for making that decision.
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